Tuesday, April 20, 2004

China is a Totalitarian State

No amount of glossy news about the ongoing economic boom in China should blind us to the fact that China is an Orwellian state, a gigantic open-air prison where thoughtcrime isn't just a fictional concept and commissars can still be trusted to vanish from the historical record.

BEIJING, April 19 — Before his high-profile visit to China last week, Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that Beijing leaders allow him to speak, live and uncensored, to the Chinese people.

After weeks of intense negotiations, Mr. Cheney was granted that measure of openness, but not one millimeter more.

Anyone who tuned in to CCTV-4, China's all-news television channel, shortly after 10 a.m. on Thursday could watch Mr. Cheney deliver an address to students at Fudan University in Shanghai. A State Department translator provided simultaneous interpretation.

But the broadcast received no advance promotion or even a listing in the Chinese news media and was not repeated. The authorities promptly provided leading Web sites with a "full text" of the vice president's remarks, including his answers to questions after the speech, that struck out references to political freedom, Taiwan, North Korea and other issues that propaganda officials considered sensitive.

The censorship showed that even a hopeful sign of political progress in China can be more like a mirage. Officials sought to convey a relaxed attitude about what Mr. Cheney might say in public but worked to alter the record. "What they do to control the media is sometimes surreal," said Yu Maochun, a China expert at the United States Naval Academy who noticed discrepancies between Mr. Cheney's speech and the Chinese transcript. "Censorship is a habit they can't kick."

In a similar sleight of the invisible hand late last year, a government-owned Chinese publisher issued an authorized Chinese version of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's autobiography, "Living History," that changed most of Ms. Clinton's references to her and former President Bill Clinton's visits to China.

The Chinese company did not notify Ms. Clinton's publisher that it was making any changes to the text, and it was sold as an unabridged translation.

American officials say that to the best of their knowledge the Chinese side lived up to the letter of their agreement on Mr. Cheney's speech, but expressed frustration that the record was later expunged.


In his speech last Thursday, Mr. Cheney spoke broadly about American foreign policy. But he devoted much of the talk and a subsequent exchange with students to links between political and economic freedom in China, as well as Taiwan, the most delicate topic in United States-China relations.

The Chinese transcript was prepared by the official People's Daily immediately after the address, and was distributed to newspapers and Web sites across the country. While faithful to most of what Mr. Cheney said, it dropped many references to "political freedom" and "individual freedom."

While Mr. Cheney praised "rising prosperity and expanding political freedom" across Asia, the official Chinese transcript refers only to "rising prosperity." It drops his statements that "the desire for freedom is universal" and that "freedom is indivisible."

It also wiped out any record of what Mr. Cheney had said about the Taiwan Relations Act, an American law mandating that the United States sell Taiwan military equipment so it can defend itself against any attack from the Chinese mainland. China maintains that the act violates agreements with the United States.

Mr. Cheney said the campaign against terror must not be used to suppress "legitimate dissent." The Chinese, who have battled dissidents in the largely Muslim region of Xinjiang, dropped that phrase. (emphasis added)

That last bit is particularly telling: what is so offensive to a reasonable person about the phrase "legitimate dissent"? It is evident that to the Chinese Communist Party, by definition, no dissent can possibly be "legitimate."

To the extent that China's people have more choices in their daily lives than do those of North Korea, Hayek's thesis about a relationship between capitalism and freedom is upheld, but I for one am no longer as enthusiastic as I once was about the notion that greater economic freedom will necessarily lead to greater political freedom. At best, the presence of the former seems to be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the latter to exist.